Editor's note: This post was updated Oct. 10 to reflect new data on absentee ballot rejections during the September state primary.
More New Hampshire voters will be casting an absentee ballot in the November election than ever before. And since any eligible voter can cast an absentee ballot this year because of the pandemic, many are using the process for the first time.
We can look to data from the recent state primary and other major elections for examples of the kind of errors voters should avoid to ensure their votes are counted. (If you want, you can also just jump ahead to the takeaways at the bottom of this post.)
The vast majority of New Hampshire absentee ballots are processed and counted without any problems. However, according to the available data, small but significant errors — like missed deadlines, signature issues or missing envelopes — can disenfranchise hundreds of New Hampshire voters during major elections. Absentee ballots are also “rejected” every year due to other safeguards built into the process to make sure only registered voters cast ballots and people don’t vote more than once.
Preliminary data suggests that about 1,700 absentee ballots (or a little under 2 percent of the more than 90,000 originally cast) were rejected in the state primary. Nearly a third of those were rejected because they arrived too late, and more than 40 percent were rejected because they were missing an important envelope or signature.
It’s also important to note that some voters whose absentee ballots were rejected were still able to participate in September’s state primary. While pollworkers aren't required to notify voters whose absentee ballots are rejected to offer a chance to correct the issue, they're strongly encouraged to do so. And in other cases, for example, a voter’s absentee ballot could have also been rejected because they changed their mind and decided to vote in person on Election Day.
This data from the state primary is incomplete, as many communities have not yet updated their records, and has not been fully vetted by the Secretary of State's office. But it represents the best available look at how many voters’ absentee ballots were flagged for problems during an election where many were voting absentee for the first time. More details on the caveats and limitations of the state's newly released absentee ballot rejection numbers can be found in this memo.
The Secretary of State’s office started delivering absentee ballots to city and town clerks across New Hampshire at the end of September, and many have already been sent out to voters. (If you haven’t received yours yet, there’s no need to panic: You should expect to soon. And if you haven’t requested an absentee ballot, there’s still time to do that, too.)
If you plan to vote absentee this year, there are some simple steps you can take to avoid having your ballot rejected:
- Don’t procrastinate. If you’re not registered to vote or you need to update your registration with a new address, try to do so as soon as possible. Your completed absentee ballot needs to arrive to your local clerk by 5 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3. That deadline applies whether your ballot is delivered in-person or by mail. If you plan to request or return an absentee ballot by mail, don’t delay doing that, either. The state suggests allowing up to two weeks for absentee ballot delivery by mail, which would mean sending it to your clerk no later than Oct. 20.
- Read all directions carefully. Pay special attention to where you’re asked to add your signature. A lot of absentee ballots are rejected because voters forget to sign the affidavit printed on the envelope that holds their absentee ballot. That affidavit is what tells local election officials you’re following all of the voting rules to the best of your knowledge, so it’s really important not to skip over this step.
- Write your phone number on your absentee ballot paperwork. This will make it easier for election officials to contact you and give you a chance to correct any potential mistakes before it’s too late. While pollworkers in New Hampshire aren’t required by law to give voters this kind of notice, they are encouraged to do so.
- Don’t send back a “naked” absentee ballot. Maybe you’ve been hearing about “naked ballots” causing problems for people in other states. A similar problem has often tripped up New Hampshire absentee voters. When you receive your absentee ballot packet from your local clerk, you should receive two envelopes: Your absentee ballot goes inside the affidavit envelope that you sign. Once you seal and sign the affidavit envelope, you put that inside the other envelope that's provided in your absentee packet. Make sure you turn in both envelopes when you mail or drop off your absentee ballot. If you need to send any paperwork with your absentee ballot, you should put that inside the outer envelope, not inside the affidavit envelope. The affidavit envelope should only hold your ballot.
- If you’re mailing your ballot, don’t forget postage. New Hampshire does not prepay postage for absentee ballots, and you’ll need to use at least the equivalent of one first-class or “forever” stamp. If you include other material with your absentee ballot, like paperwork to prove your identity or where you live, you’ll need to add more postage.
- Don’t hesitate to ask for help. If you’re worried you might mess up the process, remember that you can always reach out to your local clerk’s office. In many communities, you can also request and return your absentee ballot in-person at city or town hall. That way, you can avoid any uncertainty around postage delays and you’ll have a trained election official right there to help walk you through the process.
If you're running into any problems trying to vote absentee or in-person this year, we want to hear from you. Find out more about how you can help strengthen our reporting on election issues this fall.